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Challengers attack Georgia's redrawn congressional and legislative districts in court hearing

FILE - Georgia Rep. Mack Jackson, D-Sandersville, looks at a map of proposed state House districts before a House hearing, Nov. 29, 2023, at the state Capitol in Atlanta. On Tuesday, Dec. 12, plaintiffs who successfully sued to overturn Georgia's legislative and congressional districts asked a federal judge to reject Georgia's new Republican-backed maps. (AP Photo/Jeff Amy, File)
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AP
FILE - Georgia Rep. Mack Jackson, D-Sandersville, looks at a map of proposed state House districts before a House hearing, Nov. 29, 2023, at the state Capitol in Atlanta. On Tuesday, Dec. 12, plaintiffs who successfully sued to overturn Georgia's legislative and congressional districts asked a federal judge to reject Georgia's new Republican-backed maps. (AP Photo/Jeff Amy, File)

The people who successfully sued to overturn Georgia’s congressional and state legislative districts told a federal judge on Wednesday that new plans Republican state lawmakers claim will cure illegal vote dilution should be rejected.

The plaintiffs argued before U.S. District Judge Steve Jones in an hourslong hearing in Atlanta that the new maps don't increase opportunities for Black voters to elect their chosen candidates. They also said they do not remedy vote dilution in the particular areas of suburban Atlanta that a trial earlier this year had focused on.

“The state of Georgia is playing games,” lawyer Abha Khanna said of the new maps. “We're going to make you chase us all over the state from district to district to achieve an equal opportunity for Black voters. It's a constant game of whack-a-mole.”

But an attorney for the state argued that lawmakers added the Black-majority districts that Jones ordered in October, including one in Congress, two in the state Senate and five in the state House. The state says that the plaintiffs' dislike of the legislature's partisan choices made in a recent special session to protect GOP majorities doesn't let the judge step in and draw his own maps.

“Clearly the state added the additional district,” Bryan Tyson said of the congressional plan. “That's the cure to the vote dilution injury.”

Jones said he would rule “very quickly,” with Tyson saying the state must have maps by Jan. 29 for the 2024 elections to occur on time. If he refuses to adopt the state's maps Jones could appoint a special master to draw maps for the court.

Arguments on the congressional map focused, as expected, on whether it's legal for lawmakers to dissolve Democratic U.S. Rep. Lucy McBath's current district in the Atlanta suburbs of Gwinnett and Fulton counties — while at the same time drawing a new Black-majority district west of downtown Atlanta in Fulton, Douglas, Cobb and Fayette counties.

McBath could have to switch districts for the second time in two years after the first district where she won election was made sharply more Republican.

Khanna argued that the key question was whether Black voters would have an “additional” district where they could elect their choice of candidate, as Jones ordered. She said the total number of such districts statewide would stay at five of 14, instead of rising to six. Georgia's U.S. House delegation is currently split among nine Republicans and five Democrats.

Khanna also argued that the state, by wiping out the current 7th District, was newly violating Section 2 guarantees in the federal Voting Rights Act of opportunities for minority voters. That district is majority nonwhite, but not majority Black, with substantial shares of Hispanic and Asian voters as well.

But Jones seemed to undercut that argument when he declared the case had focused on the rights of Black voters and that there was no evidence submitted at trial about Asian and Hispanic voter behavior. He also expressed reluctance to rule on the claim of a new violation so soon.

Tyson, meanwhile, argued that federal law doesn't protect coalitions of minority voters, saying it only protects one group, such as Black or Hispanic voters — a point Jones questioned. Tyson repeatedly claimed the plaintiffs were mainly trying to elect Democrats.

“Now the claim is ‘Oh, no, no, it’s about all minority voters,” Tyson said. “So we have continually shifting theory. At the end of the day, the only thing that's consistent is protecting Democratic districts.”

The challengers to Georgia's legislative maps had different arguments, telling Jones the state had failed in its duty because while it drew additional Black-majority districts, it avoided drawing them in the parts of Atlanta's southern and western suburbs where the plaintiffs had proved Black voters were being harmed.

“If the remedy isn't in the area where the vote dilution is identified, it doesn't help the voters who are harmed,” attorney Ari Savitzky argued.

He focused particularly on the lack of changes in key areas in the state Senate plan, saying no Black voters in Fayette and Spalding counties and only a few thousand voters in Henry and Newton counties had been moved into majority Black districts. Instead, Savitzky said, Republican lawmakers added tens of thousands of Black voters from areas farther north in Cobb, Fulton and DeKalb counties in creating two new Black majority districts.

Lawyer Mike Jones, arguing for a second set of plaintiffs who challenged legislative districts, echoed Savitzky's argument. He said the state is "perpetuating vote dilution in novel and shifting ways.”

“The court’s order entitles Black Georgians in specific areas to relief," Jones said. They have already waited two years for it. They shouldn’t have to wait any longer.”

But Tyson again rejected those claims, saying lawmakers drew new districts “anchored solidly” in the areas that the judge had identified.

“The districts were drawn where they were supposed to be," Tyson said.